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Do bookstores need a rescue mission?

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Part of the advert placed by James Patterson

Blockbuster author James Patterson created a stir recently with a hard hitting advert  in two of America’s most prestigious magazines. In it, he challenged government leaders to take urgent action in support of the book industry which is finding it increasingly difficult to keep the business afloat. Faced with dwindling sales for printed books many publishers are reducing their catalogues, taking fewer risks with new authors, restructuring and consolidating with their rivals. Meanwhile the bookstores are engaged in a belt tightening exercise by closing poor performing outlets or expanding into associated areas like gifts and stationery.

Without help from the US government, Patterson fears the trend means future generations will be denied a rich vein of potential classics and works of great literature.  It would be a dramatic intervention but one Patterson says has a precedent.  In an interview with the online magazine Salon he argued that some countries in Europe already provide protection for their publishing industry so why not America?. This is the country after all that paid out millions in aid to prop up the ailing automotive industry in late 2008 when it faced calamitous decline as a consequence of a world-wide recession. But no such helping hand has been proffered to the publishing industry, he said, despite the pressures exerted by rapid uptake of e-reading. Nor are the longer term consequences appreciated.

E-books are fine and dandy, but it’s all happening so quickly, and I don’t think anyone thought through the consequences of having many fewer bookstores, of libraries being shut down or limited, of publishers going out of business — possibly in the future, many publishers going out of business.

(Quote from interview in Salon)

Is he right to be worried about the future of publishing and books?

There are certainly clear signs that all is not well in some sections of the book world.

Popular opinion puts the blame on the perfect storm of E-books, Amazon and the prolonged economic downturn.  While sales through traditional bricks and mortar stores slumped, e-book sales in the US grew nearly 10 fold between 2008 and 2010. And sales via web retailers like Amazon are booming as a result of the combination of lower prices, free shipping and the ease of  searching ordering. In 2011 it was  estimated almost one in every four books in the US was bought via Amazon.

What that means is that if you look purely at the  number of empty retail units, it would appear that Patterson is right when he describes an industry in crisis.

As emotive as the pictures of empty retail units undoubtedly are, the decline of the high street  it’s misleading to use that as the only index of the viability of the industry. Sales figures show the industry is actually doing well overall. The Association of American Publishers reported  sales revenue in 2012 was up more then seven percent on the previous year, helped by the Fifty Shades phenomenon and a booming erotica market, coupled with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy,

So even though many parts of the world have been in the throes of economic turmoil for the last five years, it seems we consumers haven’t lost our book buying habit entirely – we’re just buying them in different ways. We’re picking them up in supermarkets and the motorway services petrol station. We’re ordering them on line. We’re downloading them to e-readers and tablets. And yes we are continuing to browse and buy from the high street shops even if we do have to navigate between the shelves of games and novelty mugs to get to the books.


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